A decision by the United Nations’ top legal body that Italy was wrong to allow action through its courts to seek compensation from Germany for Nazi-era war crimes is a setback for human rights, Amnesty International said today.
Today’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) confirms that Germany has legal immunity from being sued for reparations in foreign courts by victims of Nazi war crimes, in breach of their human rights.
“This is an astonishing ruling. Today the ICJ has taken a big step backwards on human rights and turned the right to compensation for war crimes into a right without a remedy,” said Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of International Law and Policy.
“The judgment flies in the face of the Hague Convention, under which victims of war crimes are entitled to sue the state responsible to obtain reparation,” she said.
“What is particularly worrying is that other national courts may follow this judgment – despite the fact that the ICJ’s judgment in this case is binding only upon Germany and Italy.”
The ICJ said Italy’s Supreme Court violated Germany’s sovereignty in 2008 by ruling that an Italian civilian, Luigi Ferrini, was entitled to reparations for his deportation to Germany in 1944 to work as a slave labourer in the armaments industry.
Although Italy was a German ally during World War II, many Italians suffered a similar fate to Ferrini.
Since 2004, numerous proceedings have been taken out against Germany before Italian courts by prisoners of war who were used as forced labourers and by the families of massacre victims – crimes perpetrated by German forces during the final months of the Second World War.
Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars in reparations since the 1950s and appealed to the ICJ in 2008 after Italy’s Supreme Court backed Luigi Ferrini’s compensation claim.
German authorities have argued that if the ICJ sided with Italy, it would open floodgates for compensation claims by individuals around the world.
The court noted with “surprise and regret” that Germany excludes Italians interned by Germany during the war from existing reparation schemes.
The Court said Germany was responsible for war crimes committed by its armed forces during the Second World War in Italy and Greece, and admitted that its judgment may prevent victims receiving compensation.
However, it said that the claims “could be the subject of further negotiation” between Germany and Italy “with a view to resolving the issue”.
“The suggestion that ‘further negotiations’ will resolve the issue disregards the rights at stake,” said Widney Brown.
“They have produced no reparation for the victims for more than 60 years.”
“While ICJ rulings are binding on the parties in the case at hand, other national courts must remember that this judgment is not the final word on the right of victims to reparations – or on claims of immunity by states that refuse to implement that right,” she added.